Guest post by Kate Harding (and cross-posted a couple places)
So say 40.4% of people 18-24, according to The Brogan Survey. Asked to rank obesity, smoking, drugs and alcohol in order of perceived “greatest threat to public health,” most people overall (38%) put drug abuse first and obesity (30.8%) second. But among the youngsters, fat was ranked number one.
Even if you believe obesity is a major health crisis, the idea that it might be greater than smoking — let alone drugs or alcohol — is stunningly wrong, and the degree of that misperception should serve as evidence that the War on Fat is way the fuck out of control.
And I say this as a brutally addicted smoker. I love to smoke (or my brain thinks I love to smoke, anyway, which amounts to the same thing). I smoke, and I smoke a lot, even though I’m well aware of the devastating consequences — my mother died of a heart attack at 64, largely attributable to being a lifelong smoker. That’s the power of denial, right there.
But you know what? You don’t see me writing a blog called Smoky Prose, advocating for “smokers’ rights” or “tobacco acceptance.” You don’t see me arguing until I’m blue in the face that the health risks of smoking are overblown. You don’t see me complaining that cigarettes are taxed so heavily, I literally spend as much as the payment on a pretty decent car to smoke every month. I like that cigarettes are obscenely expensive, because it means a lot of teenagers can’t afford to start, and that’s a thought that makes me ecstatic. Did you know that very few people start smoking after the age of 18, and virtually no one does after the age of 24? That’s because, once you get past that window of being young and stupid enough to assume you’re invincible, and you won’t get addicted, there is no way a reasonable person can convince herself that smoking is anything but the WORLD’S DUMBEST FUCKING IDEA. (I started at 14 and was hooked on a pack a day at 17.) Unlike fat, smoking is both deadly and disgusting.
Smoking kills more than 400,000 Americans a year, and unlike the 300,000 obesity-related deaths statistic that has been debunked a zillion times, that‘s not bullshit.
The risks of second-hand smoke aren’t complete bullshit, either. Smoking puts the people you love at risk, which is a horrible thought for a smoker — but again, there’s the power of denial. There is no such thing as second-hand fat.
Being fat does not put tumors on your lungs. Putting food in your mouth does not carry a risk of later having to have parts of your mouth removed. Being fat does not endanger the people around you. Being fat does not steal your breath. (Yes, being very fat can make breathing more difficult, but rarely portable-oxygen-tank difficult. And if you see a fat person with a portable oxygen tank, that person is probably an ex-smoker.) Contrary to popular opinion, being fat does not stop your heart.
Smoking fucking kills people — and in slow, excruciating ways. But 40% of 18-24-year-olds surveyed think fat people are a greater public health risk.
Hey there, mainstream media? JOKE’S OVER. Young people believe inhaling poison causes fewer problems than being fat. THIS IS NOT OKAY. And it’s your fucking fault for regurgitating press releases from Big Pharma and weight loss companies; for repeating “obesity kills” ad nauseam without citing any source; for utterly failing to fact-check what you publish about fat; for ignoring mountains of research demonstrating that fat is both far more benign and far less controllable than most people believe; for acting as if dangerously underweight, coke-addicted young women with eating disorders are the picture of “good health”; for quoting “obesity experts” whose only training is in PR, or whose funding comes directly from corporations with a tremendous financial interest in promoting weight loss; for reporting that the American Academy of Pediatricians admits there is no evidence that “childhood obesity interventions” work, then says we can’t wait for evidence, and not batting a goddamned eye; for continuing to call any research that says obesity does not kill and may even be prophylactic against certain diseases a “paradox” instead of the plain truth scientists have known about for decades; for choosing, at every possible opportunity, to exploit the public’s baseless fears instead of correcting them.
This is what you’ve wrought: a generation that believes fat is more dangerous than smoking. Nice fucking job.
I think you’ll find that the cost of cigarettes adds to, rather than detracts from, the allure of smoking for youngsters. There’s always money for booze and smoke—that’s if the kids don’t cadge from mates, pinch them from Mum’s handbag, yoink the spare pack from the glovebox of the car, or rock up to the shop with a four-ten shotgun and a t-shirt over the head.
(C’mon, don’t tell me you all never did any of that.)
Also, why can’t the results of the Brogan survey also be attributed to good PR on the parts of the liquor industry and drugs cartels?
Ah, that Brogan survey parallels a survey done here recently; the local TV news reported that young people rated fatness as their biggest fear.
I seem to recall in my youth worrying about things like nuclear war, global pollution, and failing my exams. Public health threats? In my teens, I would probably have said drugs, smoking, maybe car crashes.
The full results are now available from the Office for Children and Youth website, and it seems the survey results were misquoted by the news station. The survey does state:
When you read down to the results tables, however, there were some issues higher. Asked to rate the top 5 “most important issues facing the community”: Drug and alcohol abuse was number one at 45%, Crime next at 44%, followed by The Cost of Living, Violence, and The Environment. Obesity came in at 30% (notably, previous surveys in 2000 and 2003 had not included this – it’s a brand new moral panic.)
Below Obesity came road deaths, war, racism, mental health, terrorism, poverty, employee’s rights, Aboriginal reconciliation, suicide, taxes, and more. Twice as many young people were concerned about obesity than were concerned about suicide.
In another section, young people were asked “What do you think is the most important thing to keep you healthy?” 48% responded “Eating well”. 18% said “Exercise”. Social connectedness, eschewing drugs/smoking/alcohol, spirituality, and keeping stress levels low all rated 10% or below. Young women were more likely than young men to rate “eating well” as the most important factor; young men were more likely than young women to rate “exercise”.
Why did the TV news choose to say that obesity was young people’s greatest fear? Maybe because in their limited understandings, “Eating well” could only be about limiting bodyweight? Either way, it’s a Media Watch moment.
I know this is kinda turning into an off-topic essay, but I’m on a roll looking at the gender stuff in the report. Picking out just bits and pieces:
– young women are more likely to seek tertiary and university education than young men
– young women are more likely to have been in paid employment in the past 12 months than young men
– young men rated pay as the most important factor attracting them to a job, while young women put job satisfaction first
– young women are far more likely to read books for enjoyment than young men; the opposite is true for video games
In other news, 25 of young people have used the internet to have their views heard, and a further 29% said they “would use” the WWW for a voice (this number peaked in the 15-19 yo age group). 15% have contacted a member of parliament, 25% have started a petition, 13% have been involved in public protests or rallies, and a further 13% have been involved in youth councils. While this is a non-random sample – the survey was conducted online – I still find this aspect of the results heartening!
Hrm. As you were.
Lauredhel, I love your off-topic essays. 🙂
Sorry, but you can’t get around the facts with hysterical rhetoric. Many feminists would prefer to pretend the obesity problem didn’t exist, because it takes focus away from the emphasis on eating disorders. If the media and fashion industries are so powerful in their ability to brainwash skinniness, then why do women continue to get fatter at unprecedented rates?
While some studies show that being “somewhat overweight” may not increase mortality, there is little doubt that proper OBESITY is a major danger to public health (see http://www.heartfoundation.com.au/downloads/res_prof_kball.pdf )
The decision by young people to rate it as a greater danger than smoking was quite sensible. Smoking is in decline, while obesity is soaring – particularly in young women.
Australian young women have put on an average five kilograms in seven years (see http://www.smh.com.au/news/national/obesity-the-new-crisis-for-women/2005/09/14/1126377375919.html )
For an average across Australia, that is extraordinarily fast. It is the pace of this shift – while smoking is in slow decline – that presents it as such a threat.
Tim Gill, the executive officer of the Australasian Society for the Study of Obesity, said: “It’s a pretty frightening scenario “¦ It suggests rates of obesity are going to escalate quicker than we believed.”
Dr Gill said concern about overweight children had overshadowed the problem among young women, in whom excessive dieting and eating disorders had been incorrectly perceived as the greater issue.
Nutritionist Dr Rosemary Stanton says: “While we see about one per cent of women with an eating disorder, we’re looking at at least 20 to 30 times that many who are overweight.”
That Tim Gill part was taken from the SMH article… I should have put it in quotes
David: I look forward to reading the delightful Kate’s response to the content of your post.
While you await her response, kindly read our Comments Policy, particularly our approach to Civility. Since you have a background in sociology, I will assume you have done some reading on gender, and understand why using “hysterical” as an epithet is completely inappropriate on a feminist blog.
Sorry, but you can’t get around the facts with hysterical rhetoric.
David, I couldn’t agree more. That’s exactly why I write about things like this.
And it’s exactly why it’s important to check out your sources. You might be interested, for example, in learning where the Australasian Society for the Study of Obesity gets its funding. Tim Gill’s comments are just swell, but someone on the payroll of several pharmaceutical companies, all of which stand to make billions from diet drugs, is not the first person I’m going to turn to for objective advice on the obesity! crisis!
If you still can’t grok why that’s a problem, I invite you to read this article on corporate sponsorship of obesity research, which mentions the aptly named ASSO.
Many feminists would prefer to pretend the obesity problem didn’t exist, because it takes focus away from the emphasis on eating disorders.
Speaking of questionable credibility, starting your argument with “Many feminists would prefer…” and ending it with anything other than “to be treated like full human beings” is not going to win you any friends around here. But thank you kindly for explaining to us what feminists are all about. We had no idea, merely being, you know… feminists.
While I am deeply concerned with eating disorders, which are absolutely devastating and too often deadly, that’s hardly my primary reason for debunking overblown, hysterical, weight loss industry-funded obesity research.
My primary reason would be that it’s overblown, hysterical, and weight loss industry-funded. I don’t like liars, and I especially don’t like people who profit from fostering public fear by lying.
A close second would be that outside the scientific realm, “health concerns” are most often used as a fig leaf for plain old bigotry. Some people just don’t like looking at teh fat — especially fat women — so they justify their hatred by telling us we’re killing ourselves and burdening the system. And they justify those assertions by citing research that’s funded by pharmaceutical companies and commercial weight loss programs, who obviously have a vested interest in maintaining the public perception that fat must be “cured.” See how it all comes together?
Finally, a little Googling reveals that the number of women in Australia with eating disorders is very much in question. I’ll grant you that it’s apparently under 5%, at least. You know what other group represents that few Australians (or Americans, or pretty much anybody else)? People who are so obese that their health, mobility, and quality of life are impaired just by being fat.
Most people whose fat is deemed unacceptable by western society and deadly by concern trolls are perfectly capable of leading full, healthy lives, with no greater mortality risk than thin people (and in some cases, less of one.)
Whether they choose to eat and exercise as healthfully as possible varies according to the individual, just as it does for thin people. But poor nutrition and a sedentary lifestyle, while sometimes correlated with fat, are far from equivalent to it. It is perfectly possible for a fat person to eat healthful foods, exercise regularly, and remain fat — owing to genetics, past dieting history, and a host of other factors. Many fat people, in fact, are doing just that; I’m one of them. Furthermore, thin people who eat a junk-heavy diet and don’t exercise regularly also suffer from “obesity-related” illnesses.
So it follows that those who are truly concerned about other people’s health will promote a Health at Every Size approach, which has proven to be much more effective at improving overall health than weight loss (which is risky in itself and almost inevitably impermanent) — and as a bonus, is of equal benefit to all people, including thin people who erroneously believe they’re healthy simply because they’re not fat.
And from that, it follows that most people who screech about fat people’s health are not interested in improving it at all. They’re interested in judging and punishing people who don’t appeal to them aesthetically — and no small amount of them are also interested in attempting to control women’s bodies, just as a general principle.
And it follows that those people can bite my fat, feminist ass.
You don’t understand your own argument, David.
The rate of statistical occurrence within a population group is unrelated to individual danger of a behaviour pattern or body shape. For instance, the rate of snakebite in any given population is very low, but the danger to snakebite victims is extremely high. If you are bitten by a snake and you don’t get medical help, you will suffer immediate effects, up to and including death. That not many people are ever in their lives bitten by snakes is not likely to be a consolation to pissed-off people hunting for someone to stick antivenene into them.
If only a small fraction of the population smoked, it would still do nasty things to the lungs of smokers. Likewise, no matter what the rate of obesity, the risk to any given “overweight” person’s life or health is marginal, separate from other health conditions (like smoking or bad diet).
Just because research is funded by powerful interests doesn’t mean that it is wrong. To refute someone, you have to go an extra step, and actually expose the flaws in his or her reasoning or methodology. Climate scientists and some commercial interests stand to gain lots of funding by presenting climate change as a big problem, but surely this does not mean the whole global warming thing is a big myth.
The article you cited did little to support your hard line position. It made my point ““ that there is little doubt that genuine obesity is a significant health risk. This is based on decades of studies, not all funded by big bad guys, but rather undertaken by committed academics in public universities. You will find lots of critical people studying public health who aren’t funded by drug companies, but who are still genuinely convinced that obesity is a big problem. Take a look around you ““ who tends to wind up with diabetes the most? It’s not all a big conspiracy of the drug companies.
The article you cite did make the point that there is a big beat up. Of course this is true. The media beats up everything. The “skinny model problem’ is another (and more prominent) favourite of the Current Affair and Daily Telegraph crowd (eg. The Chaser recently showed how ACA airbrushed bones into photos of models so it looked like they were starving).
The economic investment into anti-obesity stuff would be nothing compared to the capital invested in fast food and junk food. By dismissing the issue of obesity, you deprive yourself of an important opportunity for critique. Part of the problem with consumer capitalism is that it assumes more and more consumption is better. But more and more consumption can be destructive to people. The issue of obesity highlights this. Unlike those who believe we are all rationality calculating machines, Marx had it right ““ people are feeling, desiring animals. The incessant advertising of junk food stimulates desire in people. Young women ““ constructed as consumers more than anyone else ““ are at the brunt of this. It is no wonder they are the demographic that is becoming fat the fastest. This is a consumerism-induced problem that will hurt women if it is not dealt with. It should be dealt with in a critical, sociological way ““ NOT with the politics of personal blame and individual responsibility.
I can understand your hostility towards weight obsession, media exaggeration and the pointless cruelty sometimes directed to fat people. It can be extremely psychologically damaging to women (and men). But I think you need to be careful in your rhetoric. There is little doubt that obesity is a growing health problem, so I don’t think you should completely dismiss it.
The Devil Drink, I don’t make arguments without understanding them. Clearly the question was referring to the aggregate danger for the whole population, after taking into consideration the differing rate of occurrence. Otherwise smoking wouldn’t be on the list either. We would only be saying “snake bites”, cyanide, disembowelment, thermo-nuclear explosion, etc. It’s this kind of individualistic approach you seem to advocate that sees a drastically disproportionate amount of drug-abuse funding to be directing into crystal meth and heroin rather than the far greater social dangers of alcohol and tobacco.
David, you seem very hung up on the idea that fat accepters must be supportive of our Western blanket of multinational corporate marketing. Linking junkfood with fat individuals so inextricably has the potential to deprive you of a few important ideas: firstly, that the overconsumption of poorly-nutritious but calorie- and transfat-dense foods is not great for anyone, regardless of their size; secondly, that corporate marketing practices can be evil and exploitative regardless of the size of the people they’re marketing them at; and thirdly (and most ignored), that “slow food” and good, local produce are very much class issues. For an extreme example of this, check out the research on produce availability and prices in remote Australian Aboriginal communities. (There is a whole spectrum of access issues here; this is just one example.)
Lastly, poking one’s nose into other people business linking their individual choices to their individual size and attributing individual fault and blame is a smokescreen. It obscures the issue of systemic structures encouraging problematic attitudes to food, movement, and pharmaceuticals.
No “epidemic of obesity” is necessary to critique corporate exploitation and lies – whether those are the lies of the diet industry, the lies of the food industry, or the lies of the supplement and pharmaceutical industry.
Far from being hung up on the idea, I don’t even slightly assume “that fat accepters must be supportive of our Western blanket of multinational corporate marketing.” I simply urged caution in how far the argument is taken, and said Kate’s hard line position deprived people of one potential critique. Overlooking a potential critique of x is harding supporting x.
Linking consumption of junk food with being fat does not deprive me of the points you make. Consuming excess junk food *is* bad for everyone. I know people who aren’t fat who consume lots of bad stuff and suffer cholesterol problems. The facts remains though: junk food is one reason for the increase in obesity, and if you’re obese, you are more likely to have health problems than if you are in the middle of the healthy weight range (or slightly overweight).
Nor do I think that constructing an obesity “epidemic” is “necessary” for a critique of corporate exploitation. I simply said the growing problem of obsesity is “a potential critique”. It’s one among many. I’m not sure why you are so keen to ascribe dogmatic positions to me when I clearly didn’t take them. Only Kate took an absolutist position: completely dismissing *any* link between obesity and health problems. I think we can criticise the social sadism heaped on fat people without these incorrect (and I believe politically misguided) statements.
I’m sorry, who’s arguing in bad faith here?
The argument in my post: it is utterly absurd to claim that obesity is a greater public health risk than smoking.
The arguments in my follow-up comment to you:
1) Research that’s funded by corporations with a vested interest in one particular outcome ought to be regarded very skeptically.
2) That’s because it leads to overblown risks presented in a hysterical manner.
3) We know that junk food consumption and lack of exercise, which are sometimes but not always correlated with fat, are genuine risk factors for most of the health problems associated with obesity, while fat itself has not been proven to be a risk factor for much of anything. (Before you go there, the relationship between fat and insulin resistance is extremely complicated and simply not well understood at this point. And visceral fat does seem to carry dangers, but it’s present in some thin people, too, and the best defense against it seems to be exercise — which can reduce visceral fat without reducing subcutaneous fat. The classic example here is that sumo wrestlers tend to have low visceral fat. So once again, associating these health risks with a fat appearance is barking up the wrong tree.)
4) We know that a Health at Every Size approach can cause substantial, sustainable improvements in fat people’s health, activity levels, and stress levels — compared to dieting, it’s practically a miracle cure. But it doesn’t usually cause weight loss. So the more we focus on weight loss — which is almost impossible to maintain over the long term and does not show the same health improvements as HAES — the more we’re missing opportunities to help people actually feel better and reduce their risks of serious illness.
5) I acknowledged that there are people who are so fat that the fat itself is a problem for them. I also acknowledged, realistically, that that’s a very small percentage of the population.
So when you say, “if you’re obese, you are more likely to have health problems than if you are in the middle of the healthy weight range (or slightly overweight),” I would agree with you, if you were talking about those relatively few extremely obese people; but you’re not. You apparently believe health risks start with being “slightly overweight,” which is patently false. Many of the studies people like you quote at people like me in arguments like this do not, in fact, show that moderately fat or even clinically obese people carry the kind of health risks we hear about constantly; the raw data is manipulated to make the results match a predetermined conclusion. See point 1. And see Paul Campos’s The Diet Myth, Gina Kolata’s Rethinking Thin, J. Eric Oliver’s Fat Politics for more thorough explanations of why I feel comfortable making that assertion.
6) I said “health concerns” are often used as a mask for bigotry, which they are.
And I will add here that even if obesity were the massive health crisis it’s purported to be, the evidence is utterly overwhelming that deliberate weight loss attempts nearly always fail in the long term. No one knows how to make fat people permanently thin. No one knows how to make fat people sustain even a 10% weight loss for five years. And the only explanation ever offered for this by most sources is that ALL dieters must lack the “willpower” to “stick with it.” Which drives the myth that we DO know how to make fat people thin — teh fatties just won’t cooperate — which in turn drives this ridiculous compulsion in so many people to insist that FAT PEOPLE MUST STOP BEING FAT! RIGHT NOW!
I’m not seeing where I “completely dismiss[ed] *any* link between obesity and health problems. I said those risks are wildly overblown and nowhere near the risks of smoking. I said some of your assertions were wrong, and the data you used to support them was specious. I continue to stand by all of the above.
I think you’ll find there is correlation between obesity and health problems independent of diet. Even if there is not, they are all so tightly correlated it gets a bit silly to suggest one is not a problem. It’s kind of like “it’s not the fall that kills you, it’s the sudden stop at the end.” Sure – there may be no causal link between falling and dieing that is independent of sudden stops, but it would be patently inane to suggest that the concern about workplace “falls” is hysteria [I like how I get in trouble for that word, but not Kate].
Generally, whichever correlating variable is most easily addressed and/or most visible is the one that will get public and medical attention. It’s hard to prevent sudden stops, so the focus is on falls. It’s hard for doctors to diagnose diet, but they can get a good idea of risk and by analysing body mass.
Consider the public’s identification of Parkinson’s Disease with shaking. This is quite ephemeral to the disease. The problem is in the brain. Many people who shake don’t have Parkinson’s, and many people with Parkinson’s don’t shake. Nevertheless, it makes a lot of sense to connect the two, because they *often* go together. People who shake, or people who are fat, should be concerned, and should see their doctor, because these physical issues are *often* signs of a significant health problem.
No”¦ I explicitly said the opposite”¦ at least in the case of an individual. But now you bring it up, from a longitudinal public health perspective, it can be the sign of a problem. This is why: people tend to put on weight as they age. Young women are on average heavier than they used to be. If standard rates of weight increase hold, many of those women who are now overweight will become obese by the time they reach middle age. This IS a big problem.
I found that eating less and eating better worked for me. I assume your evidence refers to some summative evaluation that showed various weight loss programs had no statistically significant results over the long term. There are numerous reasons why we can’t assume that a non-positive summative evaluation equals a failure (read any evaluation textbook: lots of uncontrolled variables, often programs are poorly implemented, programs may be confounded by non-serious attempts, etc).
Even if the programs did ‘fail’, this suggests that we need more not less emphasis placed on the problem, and more not less investment into the programs, so they can be improved. For example, if the programs worked while the participants were on them but wore off after five years, it would make a good case for radically expanding their length.
Negative results are no reason to end programs (although conservatives try to push this argument in regards to social programs of all types). Once upon a time, most forms of medicine were failures, sometimes even extremely harmful. Thankfully we didn’t use this as a reason to cut off their funds or social respectability, or doctors would never have had the means to improve their practices and find so many cures.
I never disputed any of this, and explicitly attacked the sadism heaped on fat people.
To the extent that eating lots of junk food has a causal relationship with both being fat and poor health, the social stigma attached to fatness may have some positive health consequences, regardless of whether being fat is *itself* causally related to illness. Lots of people I know say they would completely gorge on rubbish were it not for the threat of looking fat. Should this justify social sadism? No nothing does. But I think we should be a bit cautious before we go to the opposite extreme and imply that being fat is completely fine. As I have show, fatness can be an important indication of risk. (BTW you didn’t show any assertions I made were wrong… although you did mistakenly attribute arguments to me that I didn’t make.)
Well you did say public concern about obesity was “baseless” – quite different to merely exaggerated. As I said, your rhetoric was excessively strident. If you want to make a complex causal argument, you should be very careful to highlight the complexities, rather than just imply that fat is A Okay. In actual fact, fat can be a critical sign of increased risk, a sign that your diet may need to change. As I have shown, while fatness may not be a causal variable, it certainly *is* an important predictive variable, and therefore very important from a public health perspective.
Anyway, I’m glad we had this discussion, because it has helped clarify what we agree on ““ things that I don’t believe were clear in the strident rhetoric of your first post. We both agree that if you eat lots of junk food, you are more likely to become obese. You are also more likely to die young. The consequence of this is that you are more likely to die young if you are obese. Therefore, growing rates of obesity are something to worry about, regardless of causation. Taking into consideration the trend of the rates (smoking in decline, obesity on the rise) I think the young people were quite right to place this concern over smoking. Even if you disagree on the order, I think we can agree that both are important.
David, I’ve asked you once not to use misogynistic insults towards our delightful guest Hoyden, and your snarky remark about “hysteria” suggests to me that you have heard me but decided not to understand. Please consider this a second request. On this blog, incivility is not considered a function of what others might call “obscene language”. This is all made clear in our comment guidelines.
And read this, please, if you’re hazy on why it is more problematic for a man to use traditionally-sexist words than for a woman to do so.
No need… I’ve read many apologias for discrimination.
Perhaps I’m really a woman playing with phallologocentrism by assuming a masculine identity? You will never know. But your reactionary essentialism, so wonderfully circular in its logic, prevents anything like… you know… equality.
With such transparently differential treatment, that kind of feminism and leftism will never gain a hegemony, because it so sensationally fails to convince people that it is just. But I hope you have great fun being the big powerful language police, with complete dominion over your blog”¦